Yadvinder Malhi is a professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford. His image on the early Anthropocene bottleneck and the future of tropical forests is quite interesting, but please also go read his web.
Paradoxes and a place in the chain, but which one?
I’m currently working on a planning project in a low density rural region which has historically had relevant environmental values, but also a relevant human intervention on the land. During the last century a large number of reservoirs were erected, and in recent years one of the largest in the continent has been completed. On the other side, I follow often French news, so I have seen the controversy around the Sivens reservoir project, in a low density area north of Toulouse.
European societies (those inside the EU) give a complex treatment to the environment. On one side, in the initial moments of the Union a series of directives were enacted according to the experience and philosophy of the founding countries (essentially northern ones); these laws were reinforced and formalized, and codified through European protection of specific zones, and European court rulings. On the other side citizens see the protection of the environment as a good thing; this stems from a direct experience with pollution problems and the loss of spaces and landscapes that were socially perceived as relevant. This citizen perception is by no means scientifically sound, but it is the result of the evolution over time under a favorable view, and especially in the southern countries in which the entry in the Union was seen as an improvement. As a result of the current economic crisis in the southern states some are challenging that status quo, opposing environmental protection and economic development (It is curious how easy is to rant that Brussels is to blame, as it is to say that bureaucrats in Madrid, Paris or Washington are in other scales).
The system creates paradox. On one side the scientific and administrative description of ecosystems tends to portray them as a static balance (the administrative description is the one on the land protection rules); knowing it is loving it, so due to a simple psychological rule, some are prone to think these descriptions are more accurate than current dynamics. This is an attitude I can understand as a result of the general decay of the environmental state of the Union and the fear of the unknown, and is surely at least one of the reasons the demonstrators challenge the Sivens reservoir. On the other side, dams show that sure you destroy previous ecosystems, but new water areas and irrigation of farmland changes the ecological flows and sometimes can favor the location or expansion of some species. I’m not an ecology scientist, but I see dams erected against the opposition of environmental defense group that, as time (and generations of environmental activists) changes, become areas that the same groups defend as biodiversity areas. The question I raise, and to which I have no answer due to the limits of my knowledge, is whether the current situation is better or worse in terms of ecosystems quality. I’m almost sure we’re worse off than in the pre-industrial era, but I’m not so sure when we look at two given moments in the last 50 years.
As a professional, when I have to deal with these matters I follow the advice of the environmental experts I work with. But sometimes I also see doubt in them; sure in areas that have had substantial population for centuries man has conditioned nature, and the pressure on the environment has increased substantially during the last century as a result of technological evolution. I have no doubt on the fact that many of the traditional uses of the land in rural areas produced less impact on the environment than modern approaches. But farmers are no longer the same, and they are now much more urban in approach due to the demands of the society (just remind farmers are economic agents) and their aspirations in such an urban-centric world.
Just an example: in Spain there are spaces that are currently steppes as a result of the cattle expansion policies of the Mesta during the middle ages. What is best for the sustainable development of the land, to conserve a landscape which results from the action of a wood cartel from the XIIIth century or to go back to its precedent forest state?. On the other side, one of the largest current forests in Europe, the Landes de Gascogne, were simply not there just two centuries ago, so the same question is pertinent. When we look at an urban historical core we always think on what to do with a continent as the content is largely changed, and this can also be an approach for territories.
We can think about the need to change our consumerism- driven dynamics, something I can only agree with. But I’m far from sure this alone will be enough, so we should perhaps start seeing ecosystems under a more dynamic perspective. My fear is that there we lack the basic tools, as:
- In most of the analytic disciplines, at least in the ones concerning land use regulation, the static vision is dominant; this is logical, as a result of how difficult it would be to predict interactions in such complex systems, but it produces the aforementioned paradoxes.
- The precautionary principle is challenged by some, but even those cannot deny it has a rational foundation. The problem is how to integrate it as an operational tool.
- The dilemma between thought and action is exemplified by such matters as climate change, and we are far from commonly accepted solutions, i.e., those that could become a part of our common culture, beyond the scientific debate.
So the question on our role (as humans) in the ecological chain is central, not just to guarantee our survival as a species (any species would like to survive), but also to know the limits of our intervention on the environment. I’m not implying that planning should allow everything everywhere, but that the debate must be more open.